One I made earlier*Posted: October 22, 2012
It was uphill at the start. Up the steep lane out of Goodwick, by Fishguard. Up the path where the rain dripped from hedges and the breath came short and blackthorn was in bloom. Up onto the headland where the meadows were near emerald green and black and white cows grazed in sodden fields and a farmer’s wife whose complexion was all peaches and cream confirmed the direction. “Just you keep right on then”, she sing-songed in a vaudeville Welsh voice. “You mind the boggy bits now or your feet’ll be soaked before you’ve gone very far”.
For those who created the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path it was uphill all the way. Designated in 1951, confirmed by ministerial order in 1952, minuted to and fro between committees, in 1959 there were still 31 miles where even public right of access had not yet been obtained. Then at last, in May of 1970, ten years of bureaucracy further on, there it was in all its triumph and beauty: the triumph of dedicated individuals fighting for a dream; the beauty that man could so easily mar but never could have made.
There was a wind up there. It whipped and slapped the skirts of the long cape against my legs. It catapulted the gulls up over the edge of the grey slate cliffs, and they wheeled and soared and dived and cried their wild cries over the gorse and the stone walls and the young wheat. There was salt on the wind and I tasted it and laughed aloud in exhilaration and minded not at all the flurries of rain. There was a smell of the sea and recently turned plough.
The path is truly a coastal one: rarely in all its 160-odd mile from Cardigan to Amroth, beyond Tenby, does it stray far from the edge of this westernmost county of Wales. There by force of circumstances (the nature of the terrain, long-established rights of way, the occasional refusal to grant new ones) it faithfully, at times almost perilously follows the contour of the meeting between the land and the Atlantic. In places a careless pace or two could preface a long drop to the depths of dark fissures in the grey-black igneous cliffs, or to narrow pebble beaches, secret except from the ocean and sea birds and a few others whose business it is to know them. The sound of the waves is seldom far away.
It is not a metalled path, except where it traverses outcropping rock; not of stone or macadam or concrete laid by road engineers. But man-made it is by many feet over the centuries or by the recent baby bulldozer, often in defiance of gradients that test the lungs and muscles of a heavy-laden traveller. So new were parts of it that here and there were brown disfiguring wounds across headland and hillside, but in a year of two there would be little to distinguish the work of the county council from the wear of the sheep and foxes or the ancient Welsh themselves. And not of the aborigines alone: the Vikings left their memorials in place-names ending in ‘holm’and ‘wick’ (holmen = island; vick = haven). The Normans left their mark in church architecture.
Mostly, the path was adequately signed, or obvious. Spared serious preoccupation with map or compass, I plodded steadily on, none but seabird and raven and buzzard to observe my passing. Wide were the views, very good was the air. On the first evening, after seven or eight miles as the coastal path goes from Fishguard, rain came on and I rejoiced to find a youth hostel with hardly any other walkers in it and no inflexible rules about age or membership, and with a fire. While boots and stockings slowly dried I sat with an Islay malt from my flask and the dark sea far below. Later, I made a supper of Mountain House macaroni cheese in the well-appointed kitchen; later still snuggled down into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the windowpanes.
For breakfast there were milk and eggs fresh that morning from the neighbouring farm and the sun breaking through. It was May. Early summer was following hard on the heels of a late spring. There were primroses and bluebells and thrift and lichen-covered grey rock and acres upon acre of full-flowering sweet-scented gorse. Evening found me miles beyond the youth hostel near Trefin (“Treveen”) on the headland above Porth-egr. Cautious as a frontier scout, I sought a hollow out of the wind, level-bottomed, yielding but not sodden, as close as I dared to the cliff edge so that I might sleep within the sound of the sea. Here, I set up the 4-lb tent that I had bought at an outdoor emporium in Seattle and fetched out the Islay malt and the little gas stove and the Mountain House shrimps and rice. Long after dusk, when the feast was finished and the camp candles had expired, I lay for what seemed a long time, listening to the breakers and birds still calling, remembering walks in Scotland and Brittany and the Canadian Rockies and on the Sussex Downs and thought that this coast of my ancestral Wales (my mother was a Griffiths, and her father a Thomas, and her maternal grandmother an Edwards, and very beautiful) was in its way the equal of any of them.
Next day I came down to Whitesands beach and made my way inland to St.David’s and the cathedral and said a prayer or two for things and people I love, including the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and caught a bus to Haverfordwest and a train to London.
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*Adapted from the Sunday Telegraph, May 1970.